Rays look to continue high-octane offense vs. Orioles

MLB

The catching situation is so good for Tampa Bay these days that the starter who has now homered in five straight games got Monday off when the Rays opened their four-game series against the Baltimore Orioles.

That starting backstop is Mike Zunino, who went deep twice in Boston and Minnesota and once again Tuesday.

The Rays will be back at it Wednesday in the third meeting between the clubs — a night after Tampa Bay demolished the Orioles 10-0 in St. Petersburg, Fla.

After the pitching staff’s ninth shutout, the first-place Rays — who are a season-high 26 games above .500 — moved five games ahead of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the American League East.

Zunino, 30, set his career-best mark of 26 homers Tuesday with a two-run blast.

When manager Kevin Cash has left Zunino off the lineup card, backup Francisco Mejia has been a fine replacement.

The switch hitter holds a .258 average — 43 points higher than Zunino — and has five homers, three triples, 10 doubles and 25 RBIs in 63 games.

The Dominican backstop has also produced in key situations: He is 5-for-7 with a grand slam, triple and 12 RBIs with the bases loaded this season.

“They’re both very productive hitting and handling the pitching staff,” Cash said of his catching tandem. “We’re fortunate to have two quality players at that spot.”

Louis Head (1-0, 1.85 ERA) will start as the opener for the Rays Tuesday, but lefty Ryan Yarbrough (6-4, 4.76) is expected to make his first appearance since Aug. 6 after a stint on the COVID-19 injured list.

In 12 career appearances — seven starts — against Baltimore, Yarbrough is 4-2 with a 4.34 ERA.

The most telling stat regarding Baltimore’s 13-game losing streak after Tuesday’s rout by the Rays was run differential: Minus-87, a margin of loss of 6.7 runs per defeat.

Baltimore will turn to 28-year-old Spenser Watkins, who brings a little bit of history with him to the domed stadium on Tampa’s bay.

Watkins (2-4, 5.25) has made eight career appearances in the majors — seven of them starts, where he appears to have found his niche on manager Brandon Hyde’s club.

The Phoenix, Ariz., native made his first career start against the Rays on July 19, keeping the bayside team at bay in its home park.

A 30th-round selection by the Detroit Tigers in 2014, Watkins yielded only four hits and a run over six stellar innings. He struck out seven, walked two and hit a batter as the pitcher of record in the 6-1 win.

That victory is Baltimore’s only one over its AL East opponent through the first 14 meetings.

“I like that he’s pitching with confidence,” Hyde said after that win. “The home-plate umpire [D.J. Reyburn], who I’ve known for a long time, mentioned to me that he was impressed with his stuff.

“He was surprised [Watkins] hasn’t been in the big leagues very long, because of the crispness of his stuff and how he could command.”

However, on Aug. 7 the Rays beat the Orioles 12-3 in Baltimore in Watkins’ second start against them. They banged out eight hits and five runs — four earned — in six innings, with Yandy Diaz and Nelson Cruz both homering off the righty hurler.

–Field Level Media

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